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The Historical Accuracy in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird is a fictional story about a young girl, Jean Louis Finch (Scout), and her brother, Jem, growing up in Depression-era Alabama. The film centers on the trial of a young black man accused of raping a young white woman. The film was released in 1962 and directed by Robert Mulligan. The screenplay, written by Horton Foote, is greatly based on the novel of the same name by Harper Lee. It stars Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Robert Duvall, and Brock Peters. To Kill a Mockingbird won three academy awards for best actor, best screenplay, and best director, and it was nominated for five others.


The 1930s Depression and the complex racial relations within the South form the historical context of To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird seeks to portray the racial injustices and prejudices against African Americans in the South, while also making a statement about civil rights issues that were occurring when the film was released. The film is greatly autobiographical of the novel’s author, Harper Lee, and is a study of small town life in the South. The trial of Tom Robinson in the film is reflective of the Scottsboro Trials of the 1930s and the Emmett Till Trials of the 1950s. Also, as Lee was writing the novel the Brown v. Board of Education decision had just been reached and many events in the Civil Rights movement had taken place. Rosa Parks had stirred events leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Authenine Lucy had entered the all white University of Alabama. The racial tensions leading to these events are reflected in the plot and themes of To Kill a Mockingbird.


The novel and film of To Kill a Mockingbird are largely an autobiographical account of Harper Lee’s life. Lee has denied that the story has autobiographical elements, claiming an author only writes “what she knows,” but the similarities between Lee’s life, and Scout’s life are unmistakable. The novel is set in Maycomb, Alabama, a town resembling Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Like Maycomb, Monroeville was a world surrounded by racism and occasionally violence. Her childhood and the current events of the 1950s inspired Lee to write To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Scout, Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, was the inspiration for Atticus Finch. Like Atticus, Lee was a quiet, respected lawyer in a small town, and a member of the state legislature . Lee’s father had defended two blacks accused of murdering a Monroeville merchant, but the two men were found guilty and hanged . Lee’s mother’s maiden name was Finch, which Lee directly honors by giving the main family in the film and novel the name of Finch. An important part of Lee’s extended family was lifelong friend, Truman Capote. Lee has admitted that Capote was the inspiration for the character of Dill Harris. Lee herself was known as a “rough ‘n’ tough tomboy ” much as Scout is portrayed.


Through the use of setting, Mulligan was able to accurately portray the South in the 1930s at the height of the Depression. “Maycomb, Alabama, was a tired old town in the '30s... There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with. But it was a time of vague optimism. Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself. " During the Depression, over farming had exhausted the soil, and tenement farming worsened the conditions. These worsened soil conditions and falling cotton process drastically effected economic situations for most blacks and whites in the South. Those with professions in towns were also affected, because, as Atticus explains in the beginning of the film, the farmers cannot afford the services of those with skilled professions in town. Almost everybody was poor.
The film accurately portrays the social system of the Depression era South. There was a definite caste system in the rural South. The South had a stubborn will to hold onto its traditions of the past. The social hierarchy in society must be maintained. The film acutely attacks racism and the fear of sexual taboos in its portrayal of the justice system. It is made unmistakably plain that as a black man, Tom Robinson will not receive a fair trial. The film accurately depicts locals forming a lynch mob because they feel there is no need to even try Robinson.


The film also accurately shows that racial relations were complicated on many levels in southern society. Any sexual reference between a black man and a white woman was considered a very serious offence by many whites and blacks. The set racial boundaries that had been established could not be broken . In the trial scene Atticus determines that Mayella Ewell was attracted to Tom Robinson. This caused an outrage within the courtroom because social norms held that a white woman could never be attracted to a white man. Therefore, even the suggestion that Tom Robinson had relations with Mayella Ewell causes severe prejudice against Tom in the town. . The town was not necessarily afraid of Tom Robinson, but of breaking the social norm that held a white woman could never be attracted to a white man. Therefore, Tom Robinson was guilty as soon as he was accused.


An incident of lynching through mob violence was a plausible reality in the 1930s. During the depression there was a resentment of black laborers with financial freedom, such as Tom Robinson. As economic situations worsened in the South, this resentment grew. During the height of the Depression, the number of lynching’s grew in direct proportion to the decrease in the economic stability of the South . There are several instances in the 1930s when black men were killed before they were put on trial. For example, in 1931 a man in Birmingham, Alabama accused of rape was an invalid and not able to commit the crime. The accuser’s brother however, shot the man and was never arrested for murder .  The film accurately shows the small town ethics that governed people in the South in the 1930s. The idealized public society must be upheld, at the risk of rejecting the law. If the social order was ever disrupted, men felt they were obligated to use force to preserve the social norms imbedded in society . 
To Kill a Mockingbird was written at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. The film was released in the early 1960s. Throughout the 1950s Alabama had had many tumultuous events dealing with race occur within its borders. The Brown v. Board of Education decision began to govern race relations in the South, but often with violent opposition. The Brown decision negated the “separate but equal” philosophy of Plessy v. Ferguson. This philosophy had been the ruling basis of segregated Southern society since the Civil War. Brown represented the many southerners fear of racial mixing and complete social equality . These fears led to violent reactions. Tom Brady’s “Black Monday” in which he claimed blacks would be a threat to “the loveliest and the purest of God’s creatures… the well-bred, cultured Southern white woman, ” shows the dominant ideology in the South following the Brown decision. This ideology is directly portrayed negatively in the film, as Tom Robinson is accused of soiling the purity of white Mayella Ewell. The Brown decision was still an issue when the film was released, and Mulligan is attempting to show the faults of such an ideology.


At the same time as Brown v. Board of Education, Dr. Martin Luther King had been leading civil rights demonstrations, and African American students had staged sit-ins at lunch counters all over the South. Just months before Harper Lee began writing the novel, two major events altered the course of the Civil Rights movement. In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for violating the bus segregation ordinance, and soon after, the Montgomery bus boycott began. Then two black women, Authenine Lucy and Pollie Ann Myers had their admission rescinded from the University of Alabama when the University found out their race. Authenine Lucy sued the school and won admission. She was the first black woman to enter a southern, public university that previously been only white. However, she was severely persecuted and often mobbed . The story was covered nationally and had great emphasis placed on the importance of desegregation of universities. Lee, herself, had attended the University of Alabama a few years before Lucy was admitted.


The trial in the film mirrors actual trials that occurred in the 1930s and the 1950s: the 1931 Scottsboro case and the 1955 Emmett Case. The Scottsboro Case became a national event of either outrage or celebration. It brought the issues of lynching laws and racial justice to a very international lever, as other countries followed the story. The Emmett Case was “probably the most widely publicized trial of the century” and “... the first great media event of the civil rights movement .” The Emmett Case had great significance in the South, because it occurred very soon after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Some white southerners were looking for excuses to persecute African Americans, and the Emmett Case brought this issue to the forefront of current events.


 To Kill a Mockingbird makes a blatant statement about the currents events that had recently occurred and were continuing to occur in the country. The character of Atticus Finch is a representation of the beliefs that many white Americans needed to strive for in the South. Many critics have equated Atticus to “the Abe Lincoln of Alabama. ” Atticus believed Tom Robinson, and disbelieved Mayella Ewell, a white woman. This was a bold statement not only in the 1930s Alabama, but also in the 1960s. Social norms always accepted a white woman’s word as truth, and a black man’s word as mistrustful .  Mulligan was showing that justice should not be determined by a person’s race, but by the actual facts surrounding an event. The audience that first saw this film would have understood the implications presented in the film.


The film centers on the trial scene in which Atticus gives a strong lesson of not only justice, but also what constitutes humanity.  The focus of the movie is on right and wrong. Mulligan was making a deliberate statement. By placing the events in the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird is set in time when the beliefs of men ruled their actions in defiance of the laws they professed they believed. African Americans had very few rights, and the novel and film were purposefully set before desegregation and the civil rights movement. The film seeks to show that the Supreme Court should not be needed to prove that a person of a different race is not better or worse than a person of another race.


To Kill a Mockingbird is a fictional story that portrays many realities of racism in Southern life in the 1930s. The film is relating the events of the 1930s to the civil rights movement and current events of the 1950s and 1960s. The history in the film is based on Harper Lee’s observations growing up in a small town in Alabama, as well as events that had recently occurred within the United States right before the film was being made.  The history in To Kill a Mockingbird “is therefore not literally but symbolically ‘true’ ” The film does not seek to show every historical detail of the 1930s, but shows the implications of social norms and the repercussions of these norms. The events shown in the film are subjective versions of many events of the 1930s through the 1960s that show the need for complete social equality.

2 Comments

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analivia

23 Jul 2009, 01:15 AM

this comment is a bit off topic, but there are those who think that Mockingbird was actually written by Truman Capote when he realized that Lee was not making progress with her concept. This conjecture is based on the fact that Lee and Capote were best friends; their writing styles are similar ; Lee was Capote's companion while he researched and wrote In Cold Blood and Harper Lee never wrote another book although she always said she had one in progress. Don't know if it's true or not.
Thanks for the background info.

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hepclassic

30 Jun 2009, 08:33 PM

What a wonderful analysis of the history of the Harper Lee novel and the timeless movie that followed! I first saw the movie in my eighth grade honors english class after reading the novel. Gregory Peck was perfect to play Atticus Finch, he deserved his Academy Award for Best Actor that year. That film speaks to people no matter what decade in history they live in. The lessons of the movie are that timeless.

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